Through the early 1760s, Washington continued to plant tobacco as his cash crop. However, many years of tobacco grown on the same land led to a predictable result: land exhaustion. By 1764, Washington had suffered some bad tobacco crops, and as a result, he was unable to compete well with other Virginia planters. The British system that controlled tobacco also impacted him negatively. All tobacco had to be inspected and shipped to England or Scotland to be sold through the European markets. Fees were assessed at nearly every stage of the system, placing planters in the colonies at a great disadvantage.
Washington knew that lack of action would lead to financial ruin, and he also was keenly aware of the ever-growing market for export flour. Already incurring debt, Washington made a fateful choice, and a wise one. He began to phase out tobacco as his cash crop and switched to grains, the key grain being wheat. Records indicate that the change brought a sharp increase to wheat production: 257 bushels in 1764; 1,112 bushels in 1765; 2,331 bushels in 1766; 1,293 bushels in 1767; 4,994 bushels in 1768; 6,241 bushels in 1769.
To maximize the value of his new cash crop, the wheat needed to be processed into high-quality flour for the export markets, chiefly in the West Indies. The islands there produced sugarcane, but needed flour and meal for bread. Many mills in colonial America had been shipping flour and meal to these markets since the 1680s. This trade began when the mainland colonies of British America were able to feed their own populations and had a surplus of grain. Their ships returned loaded with rum, sugar, and molasses.
However, the water mill that Washington owned was not up to the task of producing export flour for the booming trade. As early as 1760, he knew this small country mill was in need of repair or complete rebuilding. The age and deterioration of the “works”—the wood gearing and wheel of the mill—meant very poor output. The mill also did not contain all the necessary components to produce the superfine and fine flour desired by export markets. It was clear to Washington that he needed a new merchant gristmill, and in 1770, construction of this new, larger facility began along Dogue Creek. The location was selected for two key reasons, both related to water. First, this new mill would run larger millstones and machines for sifting flour and would require more water power, necessitating construction of a dam and large mill pond. Second, poor roads meant that the ability to transport the flour by boat, down the creek and onto the Potomac, would be a great advantage. Visit the Gristmill